Op het Great Barrier Reef kun je ontmoetingen met immense vissen zoals deze bultkoppapegaaivis.
A Green humphead parrotfish and divers. Roberta W.B.

Scientists lovingly call the Great Barrier Reef the largest organism on earth. This giant coral reef with its bright colours stretches for about 2.300 kilometers and can be seen from outer space. The coral, the sand and clear waters allow for a spectacle of colours.

Most tourists get taken to the reef by boat every day to snorkel or dive along the reef. Unfortunately they only see a fraction of the diverse marine life down there.

It’s the largest coral reef in the world. It starts along the south of the Queensland coast in Australia, and stretches all the way to the southernmost tip of Papua New Guinea. With plenty of islands and atolls (ring-shaped island of coral with water in the middle). Some island are inhabited.

One of the beaches of the Great Barrier Reef. Corno van den Berg

People used to think a coral reef was made up out of water plants, but now it’s known that a coral reef is like a giant underwater zoo. Most common are polyps, which in turn are made up out of thousands of tiny animals. They make up the largest part of the reef.

More than 350 kinds of coral have been found along the Great Barrier Reef, an extraordinary amount. The tiny coral creatures have an intimate relationship with the sun. The creatures (that make up a polyp) feed on plankton and algae which like to live in warm, clear and salt water.

Grote boten en permanente aanlegsteigers bij een koraalrif van het Great Barrier Reef.
A snorkeling spot. Andrew J. Cosgriff

It might sound strange, but a coral reef is actually also a giant cemetery. It’s built on the skeletons of thousands of sea creatures, and on top of these remains live other creatures. According to marine biologists the first coral reefs were formed about 500 million years ago.

The predecessor of what we now call coral was formed in the south of Europe around 230 years ago. The Great Barrier Reef, with its calculated age of 500.00, years is relatively young in comparison. And the oldest coral that can currently be found there is only about 8.000 years old.

Een kokosnoot loopt uit op het strand van één van de eilandjes op het Great Barrier Reef.
You can see new life on land as well. Philip Morton

Coral can reproduce here in two ways: some coral splits into two to form two separate entities, while other kinds create both sperm and eggs once a year. These float to the surface where the actual fertilisation takes place, after which they are carried away and set down in another location where they attach themselves and grow.

Op sommige plekken valt het koraal van het Great Barrier Reef droog.
Some parts of the reef are laid dry at times. Corno van den Berg

To date, scientists have discovered more than 1.900 kinds of fish around this huge coral reef, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. The number of molluscs is even greater, around 4.000. Sea turtles are spotted regularly on the reef, six out of the seven kinds in the world are sighted here by tourists. Coral reefs are also loved by dolphins, and sharks can be seen around reefs as well. Even whales have been known to migrate along the reef sometimes.

Marine flora, such as algae, is the main food source for many creatures that live around the reef. There are around 600 kinds of algae around the Great Barrier Reef, though you wouldn’t be able to spot them easily with the naked eye. There are also 14 kinds of seagrass here, two of which are only found here. Seagrass is a relatively young species compared to algae: according to scientists seagrass has been around for about 70 million years, whereas algae has been around for two billion years.

Must-do! tips:

Experience the reproduction of coral

De voortplanting van het koraal is een bijzondere gebeurtenis, al zie je soms geen hand voor ogen.
The spawning of the coral. Yusmar

The third week of November (or thereabouts) an extraordinary thing happens at the Great Barrier Reef: if the conditions are right the coral reproduces en masse with a huge explosion as a result. Because there is no set date, it’s best to have a bit of margin in your travel itinerary, and you should be up for night diving.

Go snorkeling with a marine biologist
If you like to snorkel you’ll see a lot, but might not be able to tell what’s what. What’s remarkable and what happens everywhere all the time? And if you’re on a boat and say you saw a yellowy-green, you’ll get a book with pages and pages of yellowy-green fish. So if you’d like to know what you’re seeing and get lots of information, go for a snorkel with a marine biologist and learn what’s what.

Find ‘Nemo’

Clownsvissen op het Great Barrier Reef.
Clownfish at the Great Barrier Reef. Leonard Low

The animated movie ‘Finding Nemo’ brought clownfish to fame. They were already known to divers and snorkelers, but now they are the favourites of the reef. They’re fairly easy to spot if you know where to look. They are the only fish that live amongst the anemones, which flow with the current. The different kinds of clown fish can look really similar, so ask you dive or snorkel instructor how to tell them apart.

Search for dugongs or manta rays
The Great Barrier Reef is a great destination for the adventurous traveler. For example, you can go on tours to spot dugongs or matra rays. Or they’ll take you to a remote location for a dive or a snorkel, especially perfect for groups. But there are plenty of options for two people as well. There are tons of options, which you can prebook to ensure your spot on a boat. Most tours leave from Cairns, but there are lots of boats that depart Port Douglas as well.

Help save the endangered hawksbill turtle

Een karetschildpad zwemt op zijn gemak voorbij.
A hawksbill turtle cruises past. eNil

You can volunteer to help protect the nesting areas of the rare hawksbill turtle at the Great Barrier Reef. You’ll catch them, measure them, tag them and release them. Researchers will teach you about the challenges they face, such as humans or wild pigs stealing their eggs, and they’ll tell you what can be done to stop this.

Go whale watching
Not many people know that whales like to hang around coral reefs as well. You can go find them on special whale watching tours. They migrate from the south to the warm waters of the north between June and early November.

Look for Great Barrier Reef’s sharks

Een zebrahaai met een gestreepte zuigvis en jonge gouden makrelen op het Great Barrier Reef.
A zebra shark with a striped remora. Richard Ling

Het Great Barrier Reef telt talloze soorten haaien. De kans dat je er een tijdens het snorkelen of duiken tegen komt is reëel. Denk aan: grijze rifhaai, zebrahaai, geschulpte hamerhaai, witpunthaai en witpuntrifhaai. Maar er zijn er veel meer. Kijk dus goed om je heen.

Spend the night on an island
Sailing tours around the Great Barrier Reef with island stays are very popular, and there are several options. You can take a nice cruisy sail to a guest house on a remote island, for example. Or a tour where you can pitch your tent on a small island. Beautiful sunrises and sunsets are always included in all tours! There are twenty islands with different kinds of accommodation, so there’s something for everyone.

Experience underwater life by night
Most diving operators offer night dives on the reef. Besides the different light by which you’ll dive, you’ll also see different kinds of creatures.If you’ve got a diving course that goes for several days you’ll likely go on a night dive, but you can also book them separately.

Visit four different diving spots
To the untrained eye all reefs look the same, but an experienced diver or someone with a passion for marine life can tell there are differences. There are actually four different kinds of diving locations at the Great Barrier Reef:

  • The inner reef has shallow coral islands
  • The outer reef is located further out and has more variety with canyons, caves and other exciting diving experiences. This different seascape offers another set of fauna.
  • The northern reef is known as the richest coral reef in the world, and tourism hasn’t had much of an impact there yet. It’s full of life, with as main attraction the potato cod that live in the huge Cod Hole.
Macrofotografie onderwater is niet eenvoudig. Hier zie je het oog van een gevlekte reuzentandbaars bij Cod Hole.
Macro photography: A potato cod. Richard Ling
  • Finally there is the Coral Sea to the east of the reef, where the grey reef sharks, hammerheads and white tip reef sharks like to hang out. If you want to see all four spots, give yourself at least a week to explore.

Hop in a ‘submarine’
You’ll go about a metre under water in a kind of submarine, with a perfect view through special glass. It’s like a nature documentary, but in real life. There is also a platform out on the ocean with a glass bottom where you can see to the bottom of the ocean and see the divers go past. Perfect for those who cannot, or don’t want to, get wet.

Explore the shallow reef at night
If you prefer not to dive or snorkel at night, you can walk along the shallow reef. One of the most famous places to do this is on Lady Musgrave Island, which is easily reached from a town with the remarkable name of ‘1770’. At night you can put on some special shoes, grab a torch and follow a guide. You’ll see sea cucumbers, and possibly young sharks enjoying the shelter of the bay, after which you can curl up in your tent for the night.

Kayak along the reef
You might not see a lot of the underwater world in a kayak, but you’ll be able to explore everything around it, such as several islands and different animals such as whales, sea turtles and sea eagles.

Heron Island is één van de eilandjes met fijn zand en vooral veel open ruimte.
Heron Island is one of the islands, with fine sand and lots of open space. Twin Peaks

Best time to visit:

The reef only knows two seasons, the wet and the dry. The wet season is January, February and March when the monsoons hit the reef, with rain in the morning and late afternoons. Visibility can be limited.

The rest of the year is fine for snorkeling and diving, but visibility is best around October, November and December.

You can see the spawning of the coral in November, and between June and November you might see the humpback whales migrating along the reef.

Coral reef